Half a Cheer for Overtraining

Back in the day, Ken was a successful ultrarunner. He won the first race he entered, a brutal 50K in the high Sierras, and had a brilliant career. He’s got huge energy, a powerful positive attitude, and indomitable will. Yet when it comes to training, he’s ultra-conservative.

Ken and I were talking in the parking lot at Rancho San Antonio, a 3800-acre trail runner’s paradise on the San Francisco Peninsula, when a well-known female ultrarunner jogged by.

Ken remarked that she was currently injured, but that she’d rejected his advice to take time off, because she was afraid she’d lose too much fitness. Ken said, “She’s running 4-6 hours in the hills even though her knee is injured – she’ll never recover that way.” Ken said that at the first sign of a serious injury, he immediately takes two weeks off. He’s learned that most injuries take that long to heal, but it takes longer if he postpones the down-time.

Doing too much is an occupational hazard for distance runners. But overtraining has its positive points. It’s nature’s way of reducing us to zero – humbling us to the point where we’re open to learn valuable lessons.

At some point in our careers, most of us have had injuries that slowed us to a jog, a toddle, and then nothing. Nature continually tries to smooth our edges – it grinds us down until we have no choice but to listen, learn, and change. Nature’s intent isn’t to humiliate us, but if we learn the lesson we discover a more enduring fulfillment.

Years ago, I asked the coach of a mega-West Coast running club if he thought running every other day was sufficient for a guy my age – I was 52 at the time. “No,” he said, “You won’t be tired enough.”

He was wrong.

New York City marathon winner Steve Jones remarked that if you want to be a world-class runner, you must be willing to go to bed tired and get up tired every day for 10 years.

I don’t have Jones’s creds, but I believe he was wrong, too.

Soon after George Sheehan switched to every-other-day running, he improved his marathon PR – at age 50-plus.

When former world-champion bodybuilder Clarence Bass reduced his weightlifting to just one intense 45-minute workout a week, with alternating routines every other week, he experienced better improvement than at any other time in his long career – at age 60.

In his book Smart Exercise, physiologist and fitness guru Covert Bailey says:

Take your rest periods as seriously as you do your exercise. Muscle tissue doesn’t grow stronger during exercise, it breaks down. It needs a period of rest to repair and build up. Back-to-back hard workouts mean constant muscle wear without tissue regeneration.

Simple advice, simply stated. Bailey says that when we overtrain, our bodies must choose: “I have X energy – should I heal my tired muscles or maintain health?” The body ends up splitting the difference, with the result that we lose fitness and often get sick.

Sports physiologists tell us it takes at two weeks to recover from a single hard workout. US Olympian Kenny Moore recognized this intuitivel, when he ran for the University of Oregon. Unlike his teammate Steve Prefontaine, who could run hard most days, Moore needed alternate hard/easy runs, with a single all-out, gut-busting workout every 14 days.

Some people believe the reason US distance running slumped badly in the 1980s and 1990s is that the American runners trained too hard and raced year-round. Meanwhile, the Africans trained extremely hard when it counted, but ran very easy on their recovery days. They also took a full month off from running between racing seasons.

In Lore of Running, Fourth Edition, p. 486, Tim Noakes, MD lists some emotional and behavioral signs of overtraining:

  • Loss of enthusiasm and drive; generalized apathy; an “I don’t care” attitude; loss of the joy of life
  • Loss of joy and thirst for competition; desire to quit during competition
  • Lethargy; listlessness, tiredness
  • Peevishness; complaining; easily irritated; miserable; anxious; depressed; ill-humored; unable to relax; bored
  • Inability to concentrate at work; impaired academic performance
  • Changes in sleeping patterns – in particular, insomnia

The physical symptoms are equally scary: “Athlete looks drawn, sallow, and dejected, with sunken eyeballs…heavy-leggedness, sluggishness…diarrhea…headache…minor scratches heal slowly,” etc.

Pity that miserable mortal, the overtrained runner. With symptoms like these, who would deliberately choose to overtrain? So, why do we do it? Because we underestimate the consequences, and we miss the danger signs.

The best cure for overtraining is, of course, avoidance – Just (Don’t) Do It. But staying healthy takes foresight and self-control. We need to know what’s happening with our bodies, and we need the patience and self-restraint to train accordingly.

We think: “If I can run hard today – I jolly well should.” Sounds mighty heroic, but it’s foolish. Overtraining isn’t about heroism; every runner knows how easy it is to run too hard, and how ego-pleasing. “Heroic,” in this case, is another word for “arrogant.”

I know. I just spent a month hacking and snorting with overtraining-induced bronchitis. Just when I was starting to feel better, I took a nutritional supplement that flattened my feelings. I went for a run and couldn’t sense what my body “wanted” to do – so I resorted to reason and logic to decide.

I thought, “It’s chilly, but the sun is out – I’ll be warm enough … I’ve run so little in the last month, I need to put a chunk of miles in my legs … When I get home, I’ll take vitamin C and zinc … Yes, and I’ll bundle up and stay warm and read and watch a movie.”

You can guess the result: I relapsed. It’s been another seven days since I’ve been able to run.

Where do we make good decisions? In our minds or in our hearts? Our culture is biased toward reason. Most books and articles on training treat the body as a machine. The rational approach gives the impression of precision, so we’ve made it the gold standard.

Yet research at Duke University, which I reported in Fitness Intuition, found that people with damage to the areas of their brains where feeling is localized had a terrible time making even simple decisions. They vacillated endlessly over such trivial choices as whether to go shopping. Feelings play a crucial role in decision-making.

The place inside us where we distinguish right from wrong isn’t the logical mind. It’s the heart. This doesn’t mean that we should follow every stray wisp of feeling. Some feelings aren’t trustworthy. We need to understand which feelings we can safely follow, and which ones to ignore.

It’s important to learn to manage feeling, because whether we train scientifically or not, our decisions can easily warped by the feelings of the moment.

Reason tends to follow feeling. When we want ice cream, the rational mind obediently trots along and serves up all the reasons why ice cream is exactly what we need. And if we have a strong desire to run hard, logic delivers a full complement of “good reasons” why it’s okay to crank it up.

Raw emotion nearly always gets us in trouble. The kind of feeling we can trust is calm, detached, and objective.

I find I have the best runs when I’m very disciplined. I’m watching my feelings like a hawk, to ensure that I’m not being led astray by emotion. I’m cultivating a kind of feeling that carries a calm, clear, intuitive sense of truth. And I’m watching my rational mind, not letting it persuade me to do anything stupid. I’m in a state of “reasonable feeling.” I’m using feeling to debunk my mind’s bogus rationalizations; and I’m using reason to see through my emotional ploys.

My most disciplined runs always end enjoyably. Emotional control never kills feeling – instead, it creates space for a deeper, more mature kind of feeling that’s deeply enjoyable and enduring. The discipline I practice isn’t tense and grim; it’s simply keeping my attention calmly on what I’m doing.

Emotion is about “me-now” — my wants. Disciplined, mature feeling is about my long-term good; and it is sufficiently self-restrained to embrace others’ needs.

Too much emotion at the start of a run is dangerous. Emotional feelings don’t run deep, and they don’t last. “I began this run feeling upbeat and bouncy – why am I feeling so emotionally dry now?”

What happened to that fleeting bubble of excitement? Emotional feeling is like a roller-coaster. For every up, there’s a down. Disciplined feeling plants deeper roots. It’s like a seed that, with time and careful watering, can grow into a strong and beautiful plant.

In our innermost self, we want to experience happiness and avoid suffering. Albert Einstein said that all human striving is based on this simple, basic urge. It’s also what drives us as runners: the desire to experience joy in body, heart, will, mind, and soul, and to avoid the suffering of overtraining.

Nature supports us in this quest. When we break the laws of our nature, we suffer, and when we stretch our edges just enough, we find joy.

Overtraining trashes the body, contracts the heart, drains enthusiasm from the mind, and weakens the will. It’s a kind of self-betrayal.

It’s difficult to find happiness when you’ve run too much – when you’re peevish, irritated, miserable, anxious, complaining, depressed, ill-humored, tense, bored — and as if that weren’t bad enough, you’ve got a headache and diarrhea.

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